Prague, 22 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan's former chief mufti, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, was sentenced to 22 years in prison earlier this month following a trial held behind closed doors.
The 56-year-old Ibadullah, an ethnic Uzbek, studied in a madrassah in Bukhara during the Soviet period and continued his studies in Egypt and Syria. He was dismissed from his post in January 2003 for reasons that remain unclear and replaced with an ethnic Turkmen, 35-year-old Kakagely Vepayev.
The reasons behind Ibadullah's prison sentence this month are also murky.
In the past year, the Turkmen government has replaced ethnic Uzbek imam-hatybs, or mosque leaders, with ethnic Turkmen in all of the main mosques in the Dashoguz region.
One theory is that it stems from accusations he was involved in the alleged assassination attempt on Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in November 2002.
Former Turkmen Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov purportedly describes Ibadullah as a key protagonist in the alleged plot against Niyazov's life. However, it is difficult to substantiate such claims. Shikhmuradov describes Ibadullah's alleged role in the plot in his just-published memoirs. The book is said to have been written by Shikhmuradov while in prison, where he is serving a life sentence as the ringleader of the assassination attempt.
Vitaliy Ponomarev heads the Central Asia Program for Russia's Memorial human rights center.
"The charges against him were described in the book published in Ashgabad under the name of Shikhmuradov. [Shikhmuradov] talked about his alleged contacts with conspirators and said that, allegedly, [Ibadullah] was planning to establish an Islamic party after deposing Niyazov," Ponomarev said.
Felix Corley, editor of the Forum 18 news service, an agency covering religious freedom in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe, wonders why Ibadullah is being sentenced now. It is believed that Ibadullah was interrogated as part of the investigations following the events of November 2002. Corley says Ibadullah could easily have been arrested and sentenced together with others connected to the case.
Instead, Corley raises the possibility that Ibadullah is being punished for his opposition to Niyazov's desire to see his book "Rukhnama" -- a self-styled spiritual guide -- given a prominent position in Muslim worship in Turkmenistan.
"The 'Rukhnama' is a kind of moral code which allegedly Niyazov has written. It's been promoted so much within the country, in its schools, in places of work, in higher education institutions and so on. And Niyazov has insisted that imams quote from it during their addresses during Friday prayers. Some muftis have been removed from office for not putting the 'Rukhnama' in a place of honor in the mosque in the same place as a copy of the Quran," Corley said.
A copy of "Rukhnama," or "Book of the Soul," is featured prominently at the entrance to every mosque in Turkmenistan. Those entering the buildings to pray must pause to touch it with the reverence due sacred objects. Similar instructions have reportedly been given to Russian Orthodox Churches in Turkmenistan.
Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy are the only two sects allowed in Turkmenistan.
According to the Helsinki Turkmenistan Initiative, an independent Vienna-based human rights organization, Ibadullah has been caught up in a general crackdown against prominent members of the Uzbek minority.
According to the organization, the Ministry of National Security is concerned about an underground Uzbek organization operating in the Dashoguz region of northeastern Turkmenistan.
In the past year, the Turkmen government has replaced ethnic Uzbek imam-hatybs, or mosque leaders, with ethnic Turkmen in all of the main mosques in the Dashoguz region, even though ethnic Uzbeks make up more than half of the local population.
Among those who have lost their jobs is Ibadullah's brother, Dustlik Seidabdulla.
(RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)